Better user personas? Maybe less slides, more role-play?

As UX Designers, we would like to create ‘working’ user personas so we can use them as a proxy between the users we researched and our team. To achieve this, we have to make those personas acceptable. What are the factors that can turn a flat persona into an interesting one — one that can hook your team in?

Photo by Alexandru Zdrobău on Unsplash

Yeah okay, more life. That’s a mouthful. Aren’t personas just a tool?

Well, let’s see.

Disclaimer: I’m new at UX, but maybe that’s a good thing. Just maybe this makes me able to notice things. Or I maybe I’m terribly mistaken.

Being a user researcher requires great people skills. This comes without saying. Good places to get more of those skills are not in UX itself. UX is extremely interdisciplinary activity, so looking outside is actually the norm here. In my opinion, UX researchers may want to borrow knowledge from the following fields to expand their toolbox:

  • movies
  • theater
  • computer games
  • roleplaying games
  • creative writing
  • psychology
  • sociology
  • everything that makes you at ease with the idea that you will bring characters to life

Being at ease with this idea requires also that a permissive culture exists at your company. Let’s use some pieces of knowledge to experiment with enhancing the personas we create.

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Here are the personas, now make a product for those people…

‘Yeah. Okay, thanks. Sounds good. Will do…’

Problem: You don’t feel engaged by some of the personas you’ve seen so far on the internet. Should you?

Reading reports from projects usually helps a lot with this. You like reading those stories. Stories — exactly. They come with plots, timelines, struggles and solutions. Stories about people whose life got improved. You don’t get that by just looking at a persona template, though.

You’re not completely sure how that works, but if you think that the UX researcher creates a bunch of personas, hands them to the team and just says: ‘here you go — build a product for them so they can achieve their goals listed here’ — it seems to you like something that may work and probably usually works just fine. Like, meh. But can you still make it a bit better?

Transferring the effort of identifying with the personas to the team seems like a sure-fire way of failing. I think — correct me if I’m wrong — that the burden of making sure the personas will be accepted belongs in large part to the UX researcher who created them, not to the team. The team doesn’t owe us any acceptance, it’s something that we will have to earn, not force.

You may also think that maybe the moment of presenting the personas during a meeting is an important point in the project timeline. I would say yes, but it should not be the last time you will be creating them. I’m not talking about iteration and validation of research here — that’s a different thing. I’m talking about roleplaying, actively creating a persona from the moment of presenting it to the team, until the project ends.

You already know that a good persona should have the following characteristics:

  • be based on actual research
  • be actionable and goal-oriented
  • be role-based, not demographic data based
  • be believable

Please take a moment to think if it’s also possible to:

  • hook the team in
  • assure better chance of buy-in from leadership
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Meeting time: presenting your personas

You may think this is a crucial moment in the process — the moment you stand in front of our teammates and set yourself on a task to convince them to your vision. You want the managers to ‘buy’ your personas. Lack of buy-in from the leadership at this point may delay or completely derail the project and make your research efforts invalid.

As user researcher, you want to make sure your work is acceptable to the team so that you can move the process forward without unnecessary friction. Take a moment to think about it, please. You are already creating fictional characters, why not go a step further with it? This will require some storytelling skills from you — but that’s something that can be learned.

If you want to make an impression that your personas are a highly valuable deliverable that will successfully inform the next stage of your team’s workflow, you will have to defend them and use them throughout the entire project. For this, your personas probably should be ‘kept alive’ by the entire team until the project ends. You may want to think about it as an active, long-term process.

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What makes a persona actionable AND interesting?

Same thing that makes the characters in the book you read recently interesting. Same thing that makes the characters in your favourite Netflix series interesting so much, that you want to see what happens next.

You may want to find out how that happens.

What makes it so interesting to spend hours of our time watching or reading about people who actually don’t exist?

Please let me share my personal research project I’m currently working on. My goal is to practice and learn storytelling that would be usable in creating better user personas.

My project: I created a website which generates stories about fictional UX designers. It’s very basic right now and the stories aren’t that good. But they are improving as I’m studying this subject and changing things there. If you are interested, please give it a try here. And if you have ideas that could work here, I’m looking for collaborators!

The first version of my Persona Generator

My goal here is to build a framework for creating better, more lifelike and actionable personas of any kind. Currently the stories are just a randomly generated pieces of text and are not based on any input data — but certainly that’s very important next step and something I’m planning to add next. I’d like to find out if there is a way to feed data to the system and be get something convincing in the output.

One thing I know is that humans don’t bond with data. We may be interested in the curious results of research, though. We do bond with other people and (sort of) with our pets.

We are certainly social creatures. We use our empathy to create bonds and get to know people around us. So, in order to make sure our personas ‘work’, I think they should become a bit more human. What does that mean?

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Yeah, it’s a flatline… meh.

Sometimes our reaction to something is just that: a meh, a shrug, a whatever. This may apply to personas who seem a bit flat. If we are creating them anyway, might as well make full use of them. Otherwise — why the hassle?

We might as well write a list of goals or Agile user stories and be done with it.

Hint 1: Characters, not personas?

Human bonding is a mutual, interactive process. There are two sides. Sure, a piece of paper with printed persona on it can’t interact. Same goes for a slide. What can we as UX researchers do to bring the character to life?

I think one of the solutions could be the same thing people have been doing elsewhere for a long time already: role-playing, as in: RPG games.

Aren’t personas very similar in function to RPG character sheets?

Kinda geeky, kinda cool, isn’t it? I think that having an inclination to playing make-believe can be a great asset in any user researcher’s toolbox.

RPG games are special because they enable us to take on a completely different role and express new things. This can touch very deep human need and open us up to completely new opportunities.

Through playing a character we can communicate emotions: affection, trust, but also negative emotions: distrust, aversion. Anything that will bring the otherwise flat construct to life, make it more interactive and — interesting.

We can also do something else here, too: embrace human weirdness. I think we are too afraid of including such aspects in our personas because of political correctness — this may actually lead to missed opportunities.

Example: if you’ve noticed that a large group of people you researched are experiencing a burnout — make a burned out persona. Flesh this out in details. And stick with it. Make it important. Because this actually matters.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Social connections

What would make this persona become accepted by your teammates if they met them in real life? You already know your team, what makes them interested in another person?

In other words, how to make the persona become a temporary team member?

Don’t create isolated personas. It should be pretty easy to bring them into your team. You can even practice this when you go with your work friends to a dinner or a pub after work.

When a group forms, it’s usually because some or all of those criteria are met amongst the membmers:

  • shared activities
  • solidarity
  • common commitments
  • equality or difference of status
  • norms and values

You can play around with those, and also turn them upside down if you need — to show why this persona would not be able to become a member of the group if that’s the case.

Please correct me if I’m wrong on this, if this is not viable in work environment, or if this is too far fetched in your opinion. Maybe you have an idea on what needs to be changed here to improve this concept and make it workable?

I’m currently looking for people who are interested in those kinds of ideas when it comes to personas — to collaborate, build something useful here and learn together. If you want to join, please feel free to give me a shout on Twitter so we can talk it over! 😀